The rollercoaster rise and tragic fall of the mystery masked man with the voice of a legend.
ORION: The Man Who Would Be King, a film by Jeanie Finlay tells the story of Jimmy Ellis – an unknown singer plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight as part of a crazy scheme that had him masquerade as Elvis back from the grave.
With a fictional identity torn from the pages of the best selling novel Orion by Gail Brewer Giorgio, the backing of the legendary birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll Sun Records and a voice that seemed to be the very twin of Presley’s himself, the scheme – concocted in the months after Presley’s death exploded into a cult success – and the “Elvis is alive” myth began.
The story of Orion proves that fact is indeed ‘stranger than fiction’. This is the story behind that story. Who was that masked man?
2015. 86 Mins. Documentary
Creative England presents in associaction with Ffilm Cymru Wales, BBC Storyville and Broadway. A Glimmer Films Production in association with Truth Department and Met Film. A film by Jeanie Finlay.
Winner: Discovery Award BRITISH INDEPENDENT FILM AWARDS
Winner: Grand Jury Prize NASHVILLE FILM FESTIVAL
Winner: Best International Documentary IN-EDIT, BARCELONA
Winner: Best Screenplay SOLO POSITIVA FILM FESTIVAL, CROATIA
Nominated: Best Music Documentary UK MUSIC VIDEO AWARDS
“Deftly told… a strange and tragic piece of musical history that says worlds about the fickleness of fame and ends with a jolt that makes it even sadder.” Critics Pick – NEW YORK TIMES
”Stirring… tantalizing… fascinating…” LA TIMES
“A must watch“ ROLLING STONE
“A vivid whirl“ VARIETY
★★★★★ THE QUIETUS “It’s unlikely you’ll see a better music film this year”
★★★★ LITTLE WHITE LIES
★★★★ RADIO TIMES
★★★★ TOTAL FILM
Full Soundtrack List
YOU CAN'T JUDGE A BOOK - Orion
EBONY EYES - Orion
HONEY - Orion
LOVE IS BUT A LOVE - Jimmie Ellis & The Apollos
COLD NOVEMBER (Cassette Version) - Shannon Stephens
KISS THE HURT AWAY - Jimmy Ellis
I CAN LOVE YOU BETTER - Jimmy Ellis
MISTER BOOGIE MAN - Avalanche
GAME YOU BEEN PLAYING - Orion
I'M NOT TRYING TO BE LIKE ELVIS - Orion
MY DAYDREAM - Two Wounded Birds
THERE YA GO - Orion - LIVE Archive
ST MALO - Saint Saviour
YOU CAN'T JUDGE A BOOK - Orion - LIVE Archive
ANYBODY OUT THERE - Orion
WAX AND FEATHERS - Shannon Stephens
DON'T LET GO - Orion - LIVE Archive
TEXAS TEA - Orion
LOOK ME UP AND LAY IT ON ME - Orion
STILL IN LOVE WITH BILLY - Jimmy Ellis
I LOVE MAP (INST) Martin John Henry
LONELY WEEKENDS - Jimmy Ellis
DOWN THE DRAIN AND IT'S GONE - Shannon Stephens
I REMEMBER - Saint Saviour
BECAUSE HE LIVES - Jimmy Ellis
SWING LOW SWEET CHARIOT - Jimmy Ellis
I FEEL LIKE GOING HOME - Jimmy Ellis
GEORGIA PINES - Jimmy Ellis
MAKING ORION: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING. What made you first want to explore the subject?
Twelve years ago I was at a garage sale with my husband Steven in our hometown of Nottingham, England. On a stall filled with cheap ornaments and dog-eared paperbacks, standing proudly at the front of a box of faded vinyl records, we found the below album.
Orion: Reborn. Sun Records. Collector's gold vinyl. Release date on the back said 1979. No songs we’d ever heard of, but that cover… Who was this mysterious masked man, standing hand on hips, with his perfect raven hair and sta-press trousers? What the hell was his story?
We took the record home, put it on and within seconds the mystery deepened. Whoever this guy was, he sounded exactly –and I mean exactly —like Elvis. Except these weren’t songs that Elvis ever recorded, and there was no mention of the King on the record. But there was the fact of Sun Records and this odd story on the back sleeve about this guy called Orion Eckley Darnell and something about a coffin, and a book… Most of all, though, there was this guy in the blue rhinestone-studded mask with the voice of Elvis. I had to know more.
The story I uncovered was one of the strangest I’ve ever encountered.
Six years later – I never forgot about Orion and knew it had to be my next film. I’ve long been fascinated with stories that peek under the surface of popular culture and the machinations of the music industry, or explore just how important music is in our lives. Stories like The Great Hip Hop Hoax– about two Scottish chancers who faked their way to a record deal by pretending to be American rappers; SOUND IT OUT about the very last record shop in my home town in Teesside or Goth Cruise a documentary about 150 Goths (along with 2500 “norms”) taking a cruise in the sunshine to Bermuda.
But this story had it all. A roller coaster tale of the Nashville music scene in the wake of Elvis Presley’s death, taking in deception, a quest for success, a search for identity and tragedy.
How long did it take to get the film off the ground?
All films are a challenge but this one has been a corker!
It took six years to be fully funded and in the end I decided, inspired by American filmmakers I knew, rather than wait for the funding to just get on with it and make the film. I raised a tiny pot of development from Emmedia (now Creative England) and would fit filming trips in, in-between showing SOUND IT OUT and The Great Hip Hop Hoax theatrically in the US. My Nashville based Director of Photography Stewart Copeland would pick me up and we'd get the next bit of the film done then we'd drive to the next screening. Once I'd got about 80 hours shot, sourced many hours of archive and 20 mins of edited scenes and people could really see and feel what the film was going to be like all my funders (BBC Storyville, Creative England, Ffilm Cymru Wales, Broadway and Crowdfunding) came in one after another and have all been fantastically supportive.
What were you most surprised to learn in the course of production?
There was very little online about Orion when I started making the film. Each new person I met or interviewed and each new piece of archive was surprising! The whole process of making the film was a discovery – I felt more like an archaeologist at times.
What was the most difficult part of the story to tell? Sadly some of the people in my film are no longer with us and some people I interviewed died during the years of production.
Bringing their story to life through pure archive testimony was a huge challenge. It was an intense process and I feel like I know some of them so well but will never have the chance to meet them in real life.
There have also been the challenges of making a film that uses a huge amount of fan archive, sourcing it from people who may not be online or dislike technology. We had to be very tenacious to find all the footage we needed to bring the story to life.
Did you have a social media strategy?
Orion receive a future documentary award from React at the University of West England which enabled us to think intensely about how to connect with audiences for the film before it was made.
We developed an online memory box called #MyOrion for people to submit archive materials, stories or memories of Jimmy “Orion” Ellis and received stories from all over the world.
We also developed a “wraparound” artwork called #IAmOrion – we staged live tributes to Orion in cinemas and invited our audience to wear the mask and upload a portrait online using #IAmOrion see the gallery or take part here - http://www.orionthemovie.com/iamorion/
What have been the differences in reception to the film in countries it has now travelled to?
I have travelled extensively with the film and am in the South (USA) right now – the film was the closing gala at the Indie Memphis Film Festival last night. It’s incredibly rewarding to watch the film with a packed audience audibly reacting to the story. My favourite of all the screenings was taking it home to Selma, Alabama. It was an incredibly moving and emotional experience I will remember for the rest of my life.
Has there been a positive response on social media to the film?
It’s been overwhelming seeing people new to Orion’s story reacting to the film and wearing his mask
Best recent reads?
Let's Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste – Carl Wilson
Jolly Lad - John Doran
Best recent films?
In Transit by Albert Maysles
Dreamcatcher by Kim Longinotto
#IAmOrion - WRAPAROUND FILMMAKING
The mask transformed Jimmy Ellis from Orrville Alabama into ORION the superstar of song. The act of wearing the mask ignited a fantasy and brought him great pleasures but also much pain. Could you sacrifice your whole identity. Would you wear the mask?
Read Dr Judith Aston’s paper about the “wraparound” approach to filmmaking, through the production and distribution of Orion: The Man Who Would Be King.